The Selinger government is standing by its proposed school anti-bullying law, despite a co-ordinated letter-writing campaign opposing it and a weekend meeting that drew 1,200 opponents in Steinbach.
Education Minister Nancy Allan said Monday she will continue to meet with the Manitoba Federation of Independent Schools over Bill 18, which was introduced Dec. 4 and has yet to be debated in the legislature.
Faith-based schools would be subjected to the same provisions as public schools, she said, including the requirement schools accommodate student activities using the name "gay-straight alliance."
"At the end of the day, I'm not going to let faith-based schools opt out of providing a safe and caring environment for their students," Allan said.
Manitoba's legislation, similar to a law passed in Ontario, has been criticized for having too broad a definition of bullying, failing to specify consequences for bullies and infringing on religious rights.
On Sunday evening, 1,200 people packed the Steinbach Christian High School -- 900 in the auditorium with a spillover crowd of 300 in the school's chapel -- to register their concerns about the proposed legislation.
"I don't think I've ever been more proud of my own community," said the area's local Progressive Conservative MLA, Kelvin Goertzen, who quipped it can be difficult to get two dozen people to a political event -- even with free doughnuts.
So far, Goertzen, who serves as his party's education critic, has received 5,500 emails condemning Bill 18.
He said in addition to faith-based schools and parents, he's heard from educators who criticize the bill for having such a broad definition of bullying -- which includes hurting someone's feelings -- it will be meaningless and unenforceable. "The educators are saying to me that they're concerned about the definition and how they're going to be able to apply it," Goertzen said.
But Allan said the definition of bullying needs to be broad if it is to be effective.
"We know that bullying takes many forms, and there is absolutely no question that sometimes bullying has a huge impact on a young person's feelings, whether or not it's psychological bullying or name-calling or humiliation or threats," she said. "And I don't think, as minister of education, that I could support that kind of definition that wouldn't include that."
Allan said school officials will have to use discretion in deciding whether a certain act constitutes bullying. "The principal is the professional. They're the person that will make a determination in regards to the specific incident that has occurred, what followup needs to be taken."
Allan said she's received more than 3,000 pieces of correspondence on the bill -- mostly opposed to it. "A majority of those emails are a standard form letter that is produced through web mail or whatever you want to call it. I've also received a lot of compelling letters from people that are supportive of the legislation."
Manitoba Teachers' Society president Paul Olson said there's a "utopian ideal" of respect for everyone, but in the meantime, "Some students are especially vulnerable" and need legislation, he said. "Right now we need signs on doors saying, 'Gay-straight alliance meeting today.' Anyone asking for a safe place is going to get one," he said.
Hanover School Division board chairman Randy Hildebrand and superintendent Randy Dueck are meeting with Allan this afternoon to discuss Bill 18's impact on Steinbach-area public schools.
Robert Praznik, director of education for Catholic schools and board chairman for the Manitoba Federation of Independent Schools, said Allan told the faith-based schools she "respects the right of parents, through independent schools, to access provincially approved curriculum within a learning milieu suffused by the tenets of their faith."
Praznik said the Catholic schools are working to satisfy both the province and their own beliefs.
GSAs offer students
a safe place to be
BILL 18 should encourage more students to form groups called gay-straight alliances, says a spokesman for the Rainbow Resource Centre. More than one-third of Manitoba high schools already have a GSA, at least 67 as of last year, said Jared Star, youth program co-ordinator for the centre.
"There's more GSAs forming in rural communities," Star said.
From research such as national studies conducted by University of Winnipeg Prof. Katherine Taylor, "we have definite proof that schools are unsafe places. (GSA) is a group of students who haven't had a voice, having a voice," said Star.
It's essential to have straight students involved, and teachers are critical to a GSA's success, he said -- like any student group, a GSA needs to be renewed year to year with younger students as others graduate.
Only two private schools have a GSA -- Westgate Mennonite Collegiate and the Gray Academy of Jewish Education -- and Star was unaware of any public or private school students coming forward in strong religious communities such as Steinbach, Winkler or Altona.
The Rainbow Resource Centre will hold its third annual all-day workshop in November to help students and teachers form a GSA in their school.
"I know the gay-straight alliances have really benefited our Winnipeg School Division communities," said trustee Kristine Barr, who pioneered anti-homophobia education in the province's largest division in 1999. "I've heard stories that GSAs have literally saved lives."
Unlike previous bullying rules, Bill 18 "specifically outlines provincial expectations for what schools must do" to accommodate students who want to form a gay-straight alliance, Barr said.
In Catholic schools, said director of education Robert Praznik, "We are currently developing policies and procedures for accommodating students who may wish to form a gay-straight alliance as per the requirement from the minister," he said. "These administrative guidelines will be in place for all student groups and include the provision for staff supervision and support, goals and objectives of the group, personal privacy, and that all activities, materials, and speakers are consistent with the Catholic faith foundations of the school," Praznik said.